The Singapore Free Press

Singapore Infopedia

by Thulaja, Naidu Ratnala


Published for the first time on 8 October 1835, The Singapore Free Press was Singapore’s second English-language newspaper after the Singapore Chronicle.1 It was founded by William Napier, George D. Coleman, Edward Boustead and Walter Scott Lorrain, and remained in circulation until 1869. The newspaper was revived in 1884 by Charles Burton Buckley. After the war, it was bought over by The Straits Times in 1946. It merged with The Malay Mail in 1962, after which it took on the latter’s name and its final issue was published on 28 February 1962.

Background and establishment
The Singapore Chronicle, first issued on 1 January 1824, was Singapore’s first English-language newspaper. It was originally owned by publisher and editor Francis James Bernard, the son-in-law of Singapore’s first Resident, William Farquhar.2 In September 1835, the newspaper was sold to Walter Scott Lorrain, a merchant in Singapore. A month later, the paper’s ownership was transferred to James Fairlie Carnegy, a Scottish merchant from Penang who came to Singapore.3

In quick succession, a new paper, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, was established, and published its maiden issue on 8 October 1835. To compete with the new paper, the Singapore Chronicle reduced its subscription and advertising rates and retail price. However, the Chronicle still failed eventually, and its last issue was published on Saturday, 30 September 1837.4

The group that set up The Singapore Free Press consisted of William Napier, who was a lawyer and the paper’s main owner, as well as George D. Coleman (the first Superintendent of Public Works), Edward Boustead (founder of Boustead and Company) and Walter Scott Lorrain (head of Lorrain, Sandilands and Company). Boustead had previously been editor of the Singapore Chronicle.5

The newspaper was named The Singapore Free Press to mark the abolishment of the “Gagging Act” in 1835. Prior to that, press censorship had been imposed on publications through the legislation, forbidding criticisms of the East India Company, the local government and its policies. Every issue of a publication had to be submitted to the government before it could be published.6

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser was a four-page weekly, with a page of commercial and shipping news that catered to the colony’s burgeoning commercial enterprise.Backed by private merchants and lawyers, it earned the reputation of being a reliable, sober and moderate journal. With the demise of the Chronicle, the Free Press remained unrivalled for 10 years until The Straits Times was launched in 1845. The Free Press remained in circulation until 1869.8

Napier edited the Free Press from its launch until 1846 when he returned to the United Kingdom. The editorship was taken over by lawyer Abraham Logan in 1848, who also became the newspaper’s proprietor for more than 20 years.Among the frequent contributors was William H. Read, who wrote articles and letters under the pseudonym “Delta”. The paper flourished under Napier and Logan, but ceased publication in 1869, with Jonas Daniel Vaughan as its last editor. The main reason for its demise was probably stiff competition from The Straits Times and other vernacular newspapers which reduced its readership.10

Revival: 1884–1942
In 1884, Charles Burton Buckley relaunched The Singapore Free Press, with a special Melaka correspondent.11 Buckley resumed the weekly publication after he managed to interest 32 subscribers into buying over the printing press.12 Besides serving as the editor, Buckley also contributed many articles on Singapore’s history to the newspaper. These articles eventually formed the contents of his classic book, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore 18191867.13

In 1887, with the newspaper’s success, five notable personalities – Buckley, John Fraser, John Cuthbertson, David Neave and Thomas Shelford – worked together to convert the paper into a daily. W. G. St Clair was appointed the newspaper’s editor, and Walter Makepeace joined as a reporter and assistant.14

The inaugural issue of The Singapore Free Press as a daily was published on 16 July 1887.15 However, the Melaka edition did not seem to be doing well. Around 1889, H. B. Collinge, who later became Inspector of Schools in Perak, made an attempt to resuscitate the Melaka edition, and succeeded moderately for about a year. The Singapore edition, on the other hand, continued to do well, and it was bought over by St Clair and Makepeace in 1895. When St Clair retired as the newspaper’s editor in 1916, it was converted into a private limited liability company by St Clair and Makepeace.16

Other well-known personalities who had worked for The Singapore Free Press included William Craig, who subsequently left the paper to join the British colonial government service in the Post Office in 1893, and R. D. Davies, who started his career as a reporter in 1902 and later rose to become managing director and editor.17

In 1907, The Singapore Free Press set up Utusan Malayu, the Malay edition of the newspaper, with Mohamed Eunos bin Abdullah as editor. Initially issued three times a week, the first issue was published on 7 November 1907.18 Utusan Malayu became a daily newspaper in September 1915.19 In 1918, Utusan Malayu was sold to a group of Indian businessmen in Singapore.20

In 1932, The Straits Times published a morning paper, The Singapore Daily News, in direct competition with The Singapore Free Press. However, the eventual overlapping of these two morning newspapers made the successful operation of both difficult.21 In 1933, The Singapore Free Press, with P. H. Romney as editor and A. S. Banks as manager, was acquired by Straits Times Press. Frank Stefani took over from Romney as editor in July 1934. The Singapore Daily News merged with the Free Press, which continued as the main morning paper, while The Straits Times continued as the main afternoon paper.22 The last issue of The Singapore Free Press was distributed on 11 February 1942, just four days before the British capitulated in the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War II. It was a one-sided quarto-size sheet, which was all that could be produced, as the gas mains supplying the linotypes and other machines for newspaper production were turned off at night, making production of a morning newspaper impossible.23

Postwar years: 1946–62
After the war, The Straits Times revived the Free Press as a daily with its first publication on 15 May 1946.24

The friendly rivalry between the two dailies proved beneficial to both parties. With the editors having their own independence, the papers at times took contradictory stands on issues. As an afternoon newspaper, the Free Press was constantly hard-pressed to produce front-page stories that would outdo the morning paper. In the 1950s, the Free Press was headed by Lee Siew Yee.25

Later developments
The last issue of The Singapore Free Press was published on 28 February 1962 before it merged with The Malay Mail, a Kuala Lumpur-based paper first issued on 14 December 1896 and bought by Straits Times Press in 1952. The new paper retained the name The Malay Mail and was touted to be the “national afternoon paper of Malaya and Singapore”.26

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. C. A. Gibson-Hill, “The Singapore Chronicle (1824–37),” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 26, no. 1 (July 1953): 195 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); “Masthead,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 8 October 1835, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Gibson-Hill, “Singapore Chronicle,” 175–76; Tan Yew Soon and Soh Yew Peng, The Development of Singapore’s Modern Media Industry (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1994), 2. (Call no. RSING 338.4730223 TAN)
3. Gibson-Hill, “Singapore Chronicle,” 193.
4. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 153–54. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Gibson-Hill, “Singapore Chronicle,” 196–97;Government Notification,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 30 September 1837, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
5. However, Gibson-Hill casts doubt on Lorrain being among the founders as he was working for the Singapore Chronicle till 1837, which overlapped with the founding of the Free Press. See Gibson-Hill, “Singapore Chronicle,” 196; Tan and Soh, Development of Singapore’s Modern Media Industry, 2; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 275.
6. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 154.
7. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 275.
8. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 68–69 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR); Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 278–84. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
9. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 499; The Singapore Free Press and the Men Who Have Made It,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 8 October 1935, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 68–69; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 153–54.
11. Tan and Soh, Development of Singapore’s Modern Media Industry, 2.
12. “Singapore Free Press and the Men.”
13. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, i–iv; Gloria Chandy, “How Press Was Born...,” New Nation, 4 December 1978, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Walter Makepeace, “Institutions and Clubs,” in One Hundred Years of Singapore, ed., Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, vol. 2 ((Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 284. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
15. Tan and Soh, Development of Singapore’s Modern Media Industry, 2.
16. Makepeace, “Institutions and Clubs,” 279, 283–84.
17. “Singapore Free Press and the Men”; “Death of Mr. R. D. Davies,” Singapore Free Press, 11 July 1932, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 278–84.
18. Nik Ahmad bin Haji Nik Hassan, “The Malay Press,” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 36, no. 1 (201) (May 1963): 50 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); “Utusan Malayu,” Singapore Free Press, 8 November 1907, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 119; Tan and Soh, Development of Singapore’s Modern Media Industry, 19.
20. Nik Hassan, “The Malay Press,” 50; Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 119; Tan and Soh, Development of Singapore’s Modern Media Industry, 19.
21. “A Period of Great Expansion,” Straits Times, 18 January 1953, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Singapore Free Press and the Men”; Arthur Richards, “After 126 Years….,” Singapore Free Press, 28 February 1962, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Free Press ‘Liberated’ after 4 Years,” Singapore Free Press, 16 May 1946, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Singapore Free Press Out Tomorrow,” Straits Times, 15 May 1946, 1; “The Singapore Free Press,” Singapore Free Press, 16 May 1946, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Period of Great Expansion”; Mary Turnbull, “The Making of a National Newspaper,” Straits Times, 15 July 1995, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Richards, “After 126 Years…..”

Further resources
Chronicles of the Times,” Straits Times, 31 December 1999, 40. (From NewspaperSG)

Evolution of the Modern Press in Malaya,” Straits Times, 15 March 1934, 13. (From NewspaperSG)

M. Nordin, “Measure of a Man Named Samad Ismail,” New Straits Times, 21 July 2000, 12. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)

The information in this article is valid as at July 2020 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



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